Tuesday, September 15, 2009

From the vault: Gimme that old time (tribal) religion

[Editor's note: Crap! I've been pulling old posts out as a lead up to my second blogiversary and then I miss the actual date...two days ago...Happy Blogiversary to me. Anyway, my conversation with Andrea Plaid (Cruel Secretary) on Sunday's Addicted to Race (player at right) about the epic fail of the Love Voodoo swingers site reminded me of this post from April of last year.]

I admire a good ghost story, especially a “true” one. I read tales of the paranormal. I watch those ghost investigator shows on television. And I’ve been known to take ghost tours in cities that I visit. I am intrigued by the idea of unknown realms beyond our comprehension. I love that glance-behind-you-and-make-sure-the-closet-door-is-shut chill that lingers for days after hearing a particularly delicious spooky tale. And I am fascinated by the places where history and the paranormal meet, like Gettysburg, Pa. But one aspect of ghost stories—true and otherwise—that I am not so fond of is the demonization of the traditional spirituality of people of color.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard reputed hauntings attributed to Indian burial grounds, angry shamans or the mere fact that “y’know where your house sits used to be Native American land.” (Cue ominous music…duh, duh, duh, DUH!)

Not as popular, but too common, is the “slaves were here” explanation. Watching a DVR’d episode of Ghost Hunters the other night, I heard a woman at a historic house that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad explain a supposedly haunted room by sharing the accepted lore about the space: (paraphrase) People say some slaves got in here an sacrificed an animal. (Cue ominous music…duh, duh, duh, DUH!)

Why do we never hear this?

Worried homeowner: I just don’t understand what is happening. Furniture is moving about the house. My wife hears disembodied voices in the laundry room. Our little Billy is interacting with a shadowy figure in the backyard and the dog refuses to go into the basement.

Ghost expert: Well, Mr. Homeowner, we’ve done some research and…some Episcopalians once held a church service right on this very land! (Cue ominous music…duh, duh, duh, DUH!)

What? Not scary enough for you?

As a black woman, I am sensitive to the ways that the traditional spiritualities of African or African-influenced peoples get a bad rap in American pop culture. The mythologies and rituals related to "dark continent" or eastern religions are understood to be less legitimate than those of Western ones.

The words Voodoo and Santeria conjure up all kinds of nasty images, thanks in part to racist Hollywood depictions of the faiths. Even I once bought into these beliefs being extra spooky. It wasn’t until I took a fascinating class on radicalism and the black church, taught by none other than Rev. Jeremiah Wright, that I learned the truth about African religions and how people of the Diaspora adapted them, using them for spiritual strength and to spur the battle for freedom and civil rights.

Voodoo is a religious tradition originating in West Africa, which became prominent in the New World due to the importation of African slaves. West African Vodun is the original form of the religion; Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo are its descendants in the New World. Read more.
Santeria is one of the many syncretic religions created in the New World. It is based on the West African religions brought to the New World by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations. These slaves carried with them their own religious traditions, including a tradition of possession trance for communicating with the ancestors and deities, the use of animal sacrifice and the practice of sacred drumming and dance. Those slaves who landed in the Caribbean, Central and South America were nominally converted to Christianity. However, they were able to preserve some of their traditions by fusing together various Dahomean, baKongo (Congo) and Lukumi beliefs and rituals and by syncretizing these with elements from the surrounding Christian culture. Read more.
You may not agree with these belief systems, but I maintain that they are no more frightening than the Celtic polytheism that influences a lot of modern New Age belief and indeed some of traditional Christianity. Why is New Ageyness seen as benign, if not a bit silly, while African-based traditions on the other hand are viewed as dark and demonic?

Oh, I know this is a little thing. Ghost stories are meant to be harmless fun. I take them in that spirit. But it rankles when I see drumming, gyrating, chanting, scantily-clad Africans, bathed in firelight, used as shorthand for impending evil in some film. And it annoys me that the tour guide at the Underground Railroad stop mentioned above would assume slaves were summoning ghosties with their dark tribal religion, instead of, say, gathering spiritual strength for what must have been a harrowing journey to freedom.

File this under minor racial annoyance…another dull ache.


kristine said...

beautifully written. i just recently found your blog (i guess it only took me two years!) and i so appreciate your voice.

we are unitarian-universalist (new agey but actually about 400 years old) but attend and episcopalian church-)) I recently posted about my sons reaction to finding out the true story behind easter this past spring. having attended uu services for 5 years he was unprepared for the episcopalian take on easter and it was pretty funny.

thanks for the thoughtfulness.

Sassy J said...

Tami, I'ma need for you not to forget your blogiversary! HAPPY ANNIVERSARY 'WHAT TAMI SAID'!!!!!!

I don't even remember coming to your blog, Tami, but I'm so glad I did. I have grown in my thinking by yours and other fabulous black women bloggers. Keep doing what you do!

George Nagle said...

I've been researching anti-slavery and Underground Railroad activity in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania area for several years, and some of your comments struck very familier chords. One of the predominate cultures here is Pennsylvania German, which has its own "dark" spiritual side in "Pow-wowing." It has been suppressed for two centuries and has been given a demonic rap. I mentioned it on my website in relation to an old church history that told of German gravediggers accidentllay unearthing the bones of buried slaves, but saving them for use in pow-wow rituals. My angle was to document the use of local church graveyards for slave burials, but I was not prepared for the numerous inquiries I got from local Lutheran ministers who "had a problem in their congregation with pow-wowing" and wanted to know how to stop it.

On the other hand, I recently found evidence that fugitive slaves used local superstitions to their advantage. There was at one time a maroon community of fugitive slaves and other disaffected people in the swamps of West Brunswick Twp, in Schuylkill County. Curious local residents stayed out of the swamps, and slave catchers stayed away, because of the rumors of dark magic, ghosts, conjurers, etc. According to local historians, many of the local ghost stories were told and perpetuated by the swamp dwellers, known as "Longswampers," themselves, thus preserving the security of the community.

Kjen said...

I know that race(ism) plays a part in how often ghost stories are related to "exotic" religions, but I also think its a combination of ignorance and knowledge.

Mainstream Christians and christianity is suppose to be a compassionate and rational religion. You're suppose to be able to find all of the answers in the Bible. And you're definitely suppose to know that ghosts aren't real. (or on my end, you're taught never to speak with them because they're up to no good).

On the other hand ghosts are a way to talk about the after life - which comes after your own death. If you're not comfortable with the Christian concept of Heaven and Hell, most people are still interested in talking about death.

I think these "exotic" religions allow alot of people a way to discuss/think/project their own speculations about death and the afterlife.

Because it is such a painful and confusing topic for many, I don't see the decline of this genre anytime soon.

What would make it more fair is if there would come a more balanced view of voodoo and santeria, showing how it affects people lives, what wisdom for living it provides, that sort of the thing.

And when that happens, I think people will look for another foreign religion.


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